Most ministry couples would agree that those times when marriage and family life intersect with ministry can be extremely stressful, Nearly every one of those times requires a choice, frequently a choice that leaves no one feeling like there was a clear cut, win-win choice. For example, it’s almost time to head out to one of the kid’s soccer games and the phone rings. A parishioner is on the line with a pressing need for you, the pastor, to make a hospital call, or to see a couple in crisis, or to meet with an elder who has received a complaint from a church member. It seems that every time the phone rings, there is yet another choice to be made: dinner with my spouse or an unplanned meeting with someone who has a legitimate need; date night or answering that phone call; a much needed and long overdue quiet evening at home or a small group meeting that needs your time and energy.
The tension in ministry that we so frequently feel often comes from feeling torn between responsibilities to and love for our families and our deep desire to be effective in loving and leading the church. It would be difficult to understate the intensity of this tension. It, among many other things, contributes to the feeling that many pastors and spouses have that ministry is an outright hazard to the health of their families. And so for many pastors, the pressing question is how to manage the stress that comes when marriage meets ministry.
One key ingredient in managing this stress is for the couple to avoid blame. The blame that often surfaces can take two paths. One is for the couple to blame each other. It goes something like this: “This is the third straight of our kids’ soccer games you have missed. You know, the kids are starting to feel like the church is more important to you than they are.” And the pastor’s response is often typical and predictable. “You know the ministry is not an 8-5 job. I am on call 24 hours a day and I have to do these things. How can you not understand that?”
And then there is the scenario where the pastor blames the spouse. “If you would just be more understanding and supportive, we wouldn’t have this discussion every time I have something I have to do. I get enough criticism from church people. I sure don’t need it from you.”
In addition to blaming our spouses, ministry couples often fall into a second destructive pattern. This time, instead of blaming each other, they blame the church when stress enters their homes. This can take on almost countless forms, from, “they expect too much from us” to “they don’t understand what it’s like to be in ministry” to “they put too much pressure on the kids” to “they don’t pay us nearly enough to put up with this.”
While it is certainly true that ministry demands will invade our marriages as well as the lives of our families, blame is not the healthiest way to manage the resulting stress. A better way would be for the clergy couple to take responsibility for the quality of their lives and to develop skill in managing these intrusions in a way that is not only healthy for the family but recognizes that the very nature of ministry includes such intrusions.
But how do we do that? Admittedly, the following suggestions may well sound simplistic, but it may be true that in this case simple is better.
First, we can learn to withhold permission from church members to move beyond being people we serve to becoming those who invade every dinner, date night, or band concert. We often grant such permission, unintentionally and with the most altruistic motives. We invite them to call anytime, we want to be available to our congregations. And so they call, drop by, or text us when it best suits them. But often those times do not suit us.
Consequently, we have to be more precise in our language. We don’t really mean call anytime (of course, there are the legitimate exceptions here). What we really mean is that we want to be connected, involved and available in ways that are reasonable and healthy. So our communication to the church should say so. But it should in no way give permission for members to insert themselves into our lives in ways that are harmful to our families, or quite frankly, to them.
Ministry couples have to overcome that unhealthy need to answer the phone every time it rings. It is our phone, we don’t have to answer it unless we choose to. Use the caller id. Use the voice mail. People are accustomed to leaving messages. If it is urgent, they will leave one.
Do not establish the pattern of answering email during time set aside for your spouse or your family. Once such a pattern is established, it is difficult to change. Also, try this: avoid telling church members to call you. Instead, tell them you will call them. Then you control when the call is made, not the church member. One caution should be mentioned here. Use whatever technology you prefer that reminds you to make that call, or trust will be eroded!
Ministry couples who value their families’ health must be willing to face some criticism. While it will be worse in some churches than in others, there will always be those who feel that if you are really a pastor, you must answer every time the phone rings, be present whenever asked, and to in the midst of it all have a perfect marriage and perfect children.
Here’s the bottom line: ministry couples are responsible for the health of their marriages and their families. No one else will make sure that those relationships are prioritized, nurtured, and deepened. But when we make sure that happens, we can much more effectively lead the church. So instead of blaming our spouses or congregations, let’s purse healthy marriages and healthy families, so we can be healthy leaders who lead healthy churches.